Q&A with Susan Heymann: The good, the bad & the practical of doing The Sound without Michael Gudinski
Pictured: Michael Chugg, Susan Heymann and Michael Gudinski
Michael Gudinski’s passion project The Sound is back for a third season, kicking off this Sunday on ABC TV, but he won’t be around to see it in all its glory. Here, the show’s artist programmer and managing director of Chugg Entertainment, Susan Heymann, talks to Vivienne Kelly about the need for more Aussie music on TV, and what it’s like bringing the show to life in the wake of Gudinski’s untimely death.
VK: This season of The Sound is going to be shorter with 28-minute episodes. What motivated that change?
SH: That’s just been a conversation collectively with the ABC about programming and what was available. I don’t think it was a conscious decision necessarily to target a shorter episode, but there was a lot of opportunity there for us to be able to deliver content quickly. It’s a lot of work trying to turn around 10 or 11 brand-new performances and find locations and talent to fill that one-hour episode every week, so this allows us to be a bit more focused on the quality of performances and let that be the highlight of the show.
VK: And there’s no host this time around – its artists talking to a prominent friend – how will that change the dynamic?
SH: I think it will just mean it will be a faster-moving show. We’re just going to be focused on the performances and on the talent. We haven’t got the news segment, we haven’t got the new music segment with that shorter duration. We just wanted to maximise the number of performances we could include in that 28-minute episode.
Vance Joy on set (Photo credit: Clara Orozco)
VK: And without live music – mostly – for a lot of the past couple of months, why do you think a show like this is important?
SH: I think this was really important for us during the peak of the pandemic last year, and it gave artists an opportunity to promote new music and to give work to their crews and have a connection with their fans. But I think now as things are opening up and borders are opening up and international artists are going to start coming back into Australia, it’s giving us an opportunity to keep celebrating Australian talent – and aligning that with Ausmusic Month and crossing over with ARIA Week, it just gives us a chance to keep focus on home-grown talent.
VK: And so how have you selected which artists to work with on The Sound this year?
SH: We’re really focused on artists who have new music coming out.
So I mean the first process is for us to talk to various labels and find out who’s releasing music and making sure that we’re focused on fresh content. And then it’s just about a balance of, we have got some artists who were on the last couple of seasons, it’s hard to not repeat talent when we worked with about 120 artists last year.
But, yea, really focused on new music so we can help provide a promotional opportunity to these artists as well.
VK: And what do you want consumers or music fans watching the show to feel? What’s the key takeaway of The Sound?
SH: I think, for us, internally and for the audience, it’s a real sense of pride and patriotism. Really celebrating what phenomenal talent we have in Australia, and it’s the artists performing as well as the quality of the production and the quality of these clips. This show is certainly world-class and we are highlighting great talent in interesting locations with incredible production, and I think it definitely makes you feel really proud.
Spacey Jane performing at Red Hill Auditorium (Photo credit: Mushroom Studios)
And I think the fact we’ve managed to find, it will be 150 artists by the end of this, and we still don’t have enough slots for everyone we want to put in the show, is really a testament to the great talent that we’ve got in Australia.
VK: How do you define success for the program? TV audiences are so fragmented at the moment, so it’s obviously not just going to be overnight ratings. What makes you feel like the show’s done its job?
SH: There’s definitely a second phase to the profile of this show and that’s the shareability of the performances. The artists are sharing their own clips on their socials, and we saw some really incredible pick up last season with that. So… I think people really talking about the content and sharing it is a mark of success.
VK: And do you think there’s enough Australian music on TV at the moment?
SH: I think that’s our constant battle is there’s definitely not enough Australian music on TV and these opportunities. And it’s television and it’s also the other channels that come from that content on social media and online. The more the better. We’ve got such great talent, we need to find more channels to promote it.
VK: What was the greatest challenge of putting together this series of The Sound?
SH: I think the obvious challenge is that we don’t have Michael [Gudinski] with us, which has been incredibly difficult, and when we had sign-off for the series, the first thought we all had was how thrilled he would have been that it was coming back.
It was really his passion project of last year. And not having him behind it is definitely very different. He was very involved in all of the decisions. He sat in the editing room with the team until two in the morning. He called every single artist on Sunday night after the show went to air and he thanked them, and he was just really incredibly passionate about this. So not having that energy and that kind of momentum is definitely different.
But I will say we can plan a bit further ahead. He never really liked to, he didn’t like to look multiple weeks ahead. I think he thrived on the chaos a little bit. So I am feeling a bit more comfortable that we’re programming into weeks four, five and six already. So it gives us a bit more time to plan.
VK: I thrive on chaos too so I actually sympathise with that way of doing this, but I imagine it’s a bit less chaotic for you…
SH: The reality is no matter what, this show is going to be chaos. The ambitions are so grand, and as much as you try, it’s impossible to be locked into anything.
One of what I expect will be an incredible performance that goes to air this weekend, we shot yesterday morning at Sunrise at 5am and it will be on TV on Sunday night. So we’re still battling the same deadlines, maybe just not as many of them. I think last season we were trying to hustle to get five or six things done at the last minute, whereas maybe now we’ve got a lead time of a week or two, which feels like an eternity in the scheme of The Sound.
VK: And what’s been the most rewarding thing about getting this season together?
SH: We are proud that we can bring it back again, as I say, because it was such a special thing to Michael and such an important thing for the industry. And I think that it’s still an opportunity to celebrate Australian talent even when our world starts opening up again. I think that’s been one of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic has been the opportunity to just focus on local and really pay tribute to how much talent we have at home.